You wouldn’t have had your Chick Coreas five years ago. Chick Corea doesn’t have to really dress up in blazer gear to get a wide following. It just goes to show you that it’s not a question of image these days. It’s more a question of the actual music.Keith Emerson, Keyboard Magazine interview, October 1977
In late 1976, my older brother changed my life by giving me a copy of Keyboard Magazine. It was a pretty amazing periodical: in those days before digital sounds, computers and then-undreamt-of technology became the prevailing medium of modern music, Keyboard focused on the serious fun of playing and listening, mostly in interviews with pianists, organists and synthesists across a broad spectrum of genres, as well as in how-to columns and record reviews. That’s where Chick Corea, who cranked out a monthly “Keyboards & Music” column and whose remarkably frequent albums merited equally frequent cover stories, first caught my eye. And through the album My Spanish Heart, reviewed in that issue my brother gave me, he caught my ear as well.
More than a decade into his career, Corea had unquestionably paid his dues by the mid-1970s. Born into a musical family, gigging professionally in high school, and briefly pursuing classical studies at Columbia and Julliard, Corea jumped into the jazz world of New York City as both a sideman and a leader of striking originality (as on the seminal 1968 trio date Now He Sings, Now He Sobs). Which is when Miles Davis came calling: playing on Davis’ trailblazing In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, then launching the avant-garde quartet Circle, Corea consistently sought the cutting edge of the music. But an encounter with L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology movement abruptly shifted his perspective. As he said looking back,
The concept of communication with an audience became a big thing for me at the time. The reason I was using that concept so much at that point in my life – in 1968, 1969 or so – was because it was a discovery for me. I grew up kind of only thinking how much fun it was to tinkle on the piano and not noticing that what I did had an effect on others. I did not even think about a relationship to an audience, really, until way later.Chick Corea, Artist Interviews.eu, 1994
That shift was palpable by 1972; in addition to the meditative Crystal Silence (an outstanding duet effort with vibraphonist Gary Burton), Corea was checking out more directly populist idioms. Teaming with bassist and lifelong musical compadre Stanley Clarke, he formed Return to Forever in 1972, traveling with lightning speed from the laid-back Brazilian vibe of Light As A Feather to the audacious jazz-rock suites of 1976’s Romantic Warrior. This version of RTF, also featuring Lenny White’s funky drumming and the flamenco-metal of guitar phenom Al DiMeola, even crossed over to the still prog-immersed shores of Great Britain:
It could be argued that, after the glory years of RTF, Corea’s work in the fusion idiom stagnated a bit; the concepts behind late-70s solo albums like The Leprechaun and The Mad Hatter could be somewhat — twee, shall we say. But a transition was already taking shape, with hard bop (The Mad Hatter’s “Humpty Dumpty”) and surprisingly spiky string quartets nestled amongst the extended Minimoog solos and Gayle Moran’s sweetly soaring vocals. In 1978, Corea mounted a duo piano tour with Herbie Hancock (who with the album Head Hunters had brought the funk to the charts after his time with Miles) that explored jazz standards and free improv, garnering rave reviews and generating two richly rewarding live albums. The journey down familiar roads to fresh inspiration culminated in the stunning Three Quartets, playing tribute to Duke Ellington and John Coltrane with a seamless blend of sophisticated, powerful composition and improvisation from Corea, Michael Brecker on sax, Eddie Gomez on bass and Steve Gadd on drums.
Corea and his work were, by and large, known quantities by this point; admirers and detractors alike probably thought they had the measure of what he could do. But over the decades, he constantly confounded expectations, revisiting familiar genres from unexpected angles, with a mix of old connections and new collaborators. The 1980s brought back fusion with the Elektric Band, but the same musicians also tackled straight-ahead jazz as the Akoustic Band. Corea would deconstruct Mozart with vocalese champ Bobby McFerrin, then corral young jazz lions of the 1990s for the bebop homage Remembering Bud Powell, then whip up a book of Latin and blues-inflected originals for his turn of the century sextet Origin (and release a box set of their one-week residency at New York’s Blue Note on his own label Stretch Records). His range and depth became the measure of his achievement, generating ongoing plaudits from the jazz world (numerous reader and critics poll awards from jazz bible Down Beat magazine), the music industry (67 Grammy nominations with 23 wins) and even the United States government (recognition as a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master). And the summary above only scratches the surface of the nearly 100 albums he released in his lifetime, including the fruits of multiple commissions from symphony orchestras worldwide.
I’d argue, though, that the last fifteen years of Corea’s music have brought forth his richest contributions. A full-scale Return to Forever reunion in 2008 brought him back into mass culture’s consciousness, and his Five Peace Band collaboration with guitarist and fellow Miles alumni John McLaughlin blew past any lingering nostalgia to dizzying heights of fresh fusion. Return engagements with Gary Burton and Herbie Hancock (the Corea/Hancock encore tour of 2015 was the only time I heard him in concert); Further Explorations, a heartfelt tribute to legendary pianist Bill Evans with veterans Eddie Gomez and drummer Paul Motian; Antidote, 2019’s revamp of My Spanish Heart with a burning Latin-flavored octet — all of these showcased Corea at his best. But so did all-new efforts like The Vigil (his final dip into Scientology-based concept albums), two live Trilogy sets with young guns Christian McBride on bass and Brian Blade on drums, and Chinese Butterfly, a multi-genre album with legendary studio drummer Steve Gadd that took four decades for the two of them to finally sit down and make.
As his 2020 release Chick Corea Plays shows, the man simply couldn’t stop connecting and collaborating — even at solo piano concerts. He didn’t just talk to his audience; after humorously “tuning” them, he called willing volunteers onstage, either to improvise their musical portraits or to let them take the lead in equally improvised duets. Mozart and Gershwin, Baroque composer Domenico Scarlatti and Tin Pan Alley songwriter Jerome Kern, Bill Evans and Brazilian national treasure Carlos Jobim, bop pioneer Thelonious Monk and flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia all come together in Corea’s fertile mind, under his impeccably fluent fingers. His point? It’s all music; it’s all fun. Wanna come along with me? It’s the question he always asked his fellow musicians and his listeners, the title of a 1972 song: “What Game Shall We Play Today?”
Which is what made the news of Chick Corea’s death, due to a rare form of cancer, such a shock when it broke on February 11th. I would bet anything that, before his illness struck, he had so much more music in him, for us. But it’s also obvious that in his life of connection and collaboration, he had his reward. As he wrote in a final message posted to his website after his passing:
I want to thank all of those along my journey who have helped keep the music fires burning bright. It is my hope that those who have an inkling to play, write, perform or otherwise, do so. If not for yourself then for the rest of us. It’s not only that the world needs more artists, it’s also just a lot of fun.
And to my amazing musician friends who have been like family to me as long as I’ve known you: It has been a blessing and an honor learning from and playing with all of you. My mission has always been to bring the joy of creating anywhere I could, and to have done so with all the artists that I admire so dearly — this has been the richness of my life.Chick Corea’s farewell message to “all those he knew and loved, and to all those who loved him.”
— Rick Krueger